Reading is an experience that is unique to each individual who embarks on a journey with text. To put reading skills into a series of linear steps, where skill based instruction becomes the basis for the reading classroom, robs young readers of the experience of discovery and growth in and with text. As educators, we must be aware of this occurring in our classroom. As I read over the literature focused on matching readers to text and instruction, four key points come to the forefront of my mind:
- Interest and readability of text must be considered when selecting instructional materials.
- The textbook must be considered an additional tool in the content area classroom, not the basis of instruction.
- Instruction must be student focused, not program focused.
- Independent reading must be highly valued and treated as a vital component of the reading block.
As we design lessons and gather materials, we must be aware of our students’ reading levels. If content area text is too difficult, students will be hung up on decoding and comprehension, never reaching the level of synthesis required to fully understand the text. In an inclusive classroom, where the teacher is responsible for differentiation, a one-size-fits-all text will not work for a diverse group of learners (Allington, 2002). With textbooks typically being at least one or two years above grade level, we need to view the textbook as a resource, not the cornerstone of instruction (Allington, 2002). Supplemental instructional materials that are of interest to students and aligned with their reading levels ensure success in the content area classroom. While reading instruction can, and should, occur across all content areas, we need to focus on making our students successful in the content area. This success leads to confidence gains and reading level improvement, which allows students to move themselves through their ZPD to higher level texts. Success equals more success.
In selecting reading and instructional materials for the classroom, we must consider the students we are teaching, not the program that came in a box (Allington, 2002). Reading programs are full of passages that are of little interest to students and at inappropriate reading levels. In a study of 153 reading programs conducted by the What Works Clearinghouse, only one program was found to have “strong evidence” that it improved reading skills in students (Allington, 2013). So why do educators continue to use these basal reading programs, ignoring the students in front of them who are drudging through the text and being taught to hate reading? These programs push the teaching of isolated skills, not the broad idea of reading. Lower level readers are forced to spend more time with worksheets and isolated skill tasks, while higher level readers are offered more time for independent reading, the one activity which actually does improve overall reading abilities (Allington, 2013). This leads to continuous struggles for lower level readers, while the higher level readers continue to soar. The reading curriculum needs to contain more meaning focused lessons for all levels of readers, using interesting and accessible text on the student’s level, not just isolated skill lessons (Allington, 2013). This change will increase performance and success of all learners.
As we examine the changes needed in the classroom in relation to reading instruction and text selection, one common theme continues to surface: opportunities to read. Allington (2009) states that independent reading has the ability to self-teach students all of the major reading components (as cited in Allington, 2013). Why then do we limit, or even eliminate, the process of independent reading in the classroom? This element of the instructional day should be given top priority. If we expect struggling readers to improve, we must give them opportunities to practice. We must give readers the opportunity to read without concern for error or “right ans wrong” answers. We must teach students that reading is an opportunity for discovery and exploration, a door through which they can learn new things and experience fantastical journeys. Applegate, Quinn, and Applegate (2006) inspire this change in how we approach reading by stating “to teach literature as a series of questions with right and wrong answers is to treat it as content rather than as a literary work to be thought about and interpreted” (p.48). Let us teach students how to be thoughtful and use their experiences to interpret what they read, synthesizing it with their schema, to create new thoughts and change the world.
Allington, R. L. (2002). You can’t learn much from books you can’t read. Educational Leadership, 60(3), 16-19.
Allington, R. L. (2013). What really matters when working with struggling readers. Reading Teacher, 66(7), 520-530.
Applegate, M. D., Quinn, K. B., & Applegate, A. J. (2006). Profiles in comprehension. Reading Teacher, 60(1), 48-57.